Spying legislation goes too far

Last updated 12:05 18/06/2013

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So, it turns out the conspiracy theorists were on to something.

OPINION: According to the past week's revelations, the free world's spy agencies really have been intercepting phone calls and combing through everyone's Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Google searches for signs of subversive intentions.

That's almost enough to make one pine for the innocent days of 2008, when Big Government seemed interested only in the size of our shower attachments and the energy efficiency of our lightbulbs.

"Is there no limit to the nanny state?" Kiwiblog's David Farrar wailed at the time, appalled at the prospect of the lightbulb police.

Well, no, there doesn't seem to be a limit, as it turns out.

Here at home, the Key Government is about to change the legislation that governs the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), to enable it to (legally) spy on New Zealanders.

So far, the centre-right parties and their allies in the blogosphere have not seemed unduly alarmed about that development. Perhaps because, this time, it is their Big Brother.

This enhanced role for the GCSB is a major extension of the surveillance powers of the state.

To date, Prime Minister John Key has tried to make it look like merely a bit of tidy housework, rather than a radical renovation of the premises.

In Key's view, the GCSB's legal position had hitherto been "unclear". Apparently, the GCSB had always thought it could provide "agency support" to the police and SIS, and this proposed change will merely "clarify" some legislation that was never really "fit for purpose".

Which would be true only if the purpose all along had been for the GCSB to spy on New Zealanders.

Yet that was never Parliament's intention.

The existing legislation drew a clear line of difference - with the GCSB being empowered to protect New Zealand from the hostile actions of foreigners, while the SIS looked after domestic security.

The fact the GCSB chose to regularly break the relevant law - about 56 times, according to the Kitteridge report - hardly seems like a good reason to reward it, by extending its powers.

As the blogger No Right Turn has shown with chapter and verse, the 2003 parliamentary debates were adamant about the intended constraints on the GCSB.

When introducing the GCSB Bill, Labour's Michael Cullen said: "Clause 14 . . . means the bureau is not permitted to take any action for the purpose of intercepting the communications of a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident unless that person is acting as a representative of a foreign organisation."

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Hansard shows Phil Goff and National's Wayne Mapp and Simon Power all agreeing that section 14 of the GCSB Act actively prevented the sort of actions about which Key now claims the legislation was "unclear".

Now, as the spies expand their role, the oversight mechanisms on their activities remain as threadbare as ever.

Last week, The Economist magazine provided an interesting rationale for the recent expansions of the surveillance society.

The extent of surveillance may be out of proportion to the threat posed by terrorists but, the magazine noted, the political impact of the occasional security lapse is also out of proportion to the subsequent body count.

Primarily, then, what is being safeguarded by these intrusive measures is the Government's own credibility, rather than public safety.

- The Wellingtonian


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